Families in Asia
STELLA R. QUAH
Families in Asia. Home and kin
London: Routledge, 2009; xiii, 212 pp. ISBN 9780415455688 (hb £85); 9780415455701 (pb £19.99); 9780203888506 (ebk), 2nd edn.
Reviewed by Victor T. King, University of Leeds
This is an important and ambitious reference work with a substantial bibliography, now in second edition. It provides a comparative perspective and a historical, conceptual and methodological investigation of the family across East and Southeast Asia, specifically from 1990 to 2007, though with attention to changing trends in family life over the past 50 years. The four East Asian countries covered comprise China, Japan, Hong Kong (a Special Administrative Region) and South Korea, and there are six Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. As Stella Quah explains the choice of case material was dictated primarily by the availability of comparable national data from a range of qualitative micro-level social science studies, some of which she has undertaken herself, and larger-scale demographic and statistical-survey data gathered by international organisations and national government bodies. Even so some of the data are still relatively uneven and render the exercise of systematic comparison difficult. The purpose of Quah’s comparative study which commenced in 2000 after a long career spanning the previous two decades in examining ‘marriage and parenthood policies’ in both Western and Asian countries and undertaking detailed and extended studies of the family in Singapore, was ‘to investigate how different or similar family life is across Asia’ (p. xi). A major question which triggered her interest, based originally on her detailed and well known studies of Singapore, was ‘Is there then a ‘typical’ Asian family?
The promotional blurb to the book indicates that this new edition is ‘updated and expanded throughout’ with ‘new material on dowry, singlehood, adoption, the transformation of the senior generation, changes in family courts and the role of the state in family wellbeing’ (p. i). The first edition, published in Singapore in 2003 under the title Home and kin: families in Asia, received very encouraging reviews indeed and presumably sold well. Indeed, such eulogies as ‘remarkable’ and ‘classic’ appeared in reviews at the time.
Quah informs us in her preface that the themes addressed in this second edition are guided by those discussed in the second edition of her country-based case study Families in Singapore: sociological perspectives (1998) in order ‘to facilitate cross-national comparisons’ (pp. xi-xii). Interestingly, one notes in passing that there is no direct reference to and commentary on the first edition of Families in Asia either in the preface or the introductory chapter and no attempt to respond to reviewers’ and others’ comments or indicate how the second edition derives, develops and differs from the first. Be that as it may the major themes and issues carried forward from 1998 rather than 2003 with some elaboration and additions comprise: the formation of families, including such processes as the identification of eligible partners, dating, match-making, marriage, dowries and co-habitation; parenthood, state-driven family policy and population control, parent-child relations and socialisation; ageing, grandparenthood, social capital and the inter-generational transmission of values; gender roles and the tensions which women have to address in terms of traditional expectations of male-female roles and statuses, changing economic demands in the work place, and the increasing importance of gender equality in the context of such developments as women’s movements; divorce, family courts and conflict resolution in family life; and finally the effects of government policies and socio-economic development on the family.
Of course, in any comparative endeavour there is a requirement to establish units which are comparable. In sociology and anthropology the term ‘family’ has been used to cover a range of socio-economic units which has involved social scientists in the rather pedestrian task of developing classifications of family types. The ‘family’ also jostles with such other terms as ‘household’ and ‘domestic group’ in the literature. For me and with reference to anthropological concerns ‘family’ refers to the domain of kinship; ‘household’ to the residential dimension; and ‘domestic group’ to the arena of activities including house-keeping, and physical and social support. What I find especially interesting is the considerable difference (though with some overlap) in the kinds of literature and the perspectives which are deployed by sociologists (like Quah) and anthropologists (like me) studying family issues in Southeast Asia. Following David Klein and James White, in their work on ‘family theories’, Quah states that the family is a unique social group which has four main characteristics; it has significant continuity or endurance (it persists); it is cross-generational; it is based on both biological and affinal relationships; and it is embedded in a wider set of kinship relationships or has links to ‘a larger kinship organisation’ (p. 2) She also draws a useful distinction between ideal, actual and ‘affectual’ families and indicates that in Asia the ‘ideal form’ tends to be a three-generational extended family. Yet in practice and in response to a range of circumstances, policies and pressures ‘actual’ families can vary in form and character. I should note here that among anthropologists there have also been debates about what constitutes an extended family and, depending on the definition used, whether or not such a unit is in ideal terms characteristic of Asia.
Notwithstanding these terminological and disciplinary quibbles I have enormous admiration for the way Quah handles a truly substantial amount of qualitative and quantitative material. Her book bristles with charts and tables. Her analysis is wide-ranging and skilful, her argument and narrative fluent, her scholarship of a high quality. She identifies and examines several noticeable trends, some of which affect and others which arise from family life. People are living longer and having fewer children; women face conflicting pressures in modernising economies; there is a noticeable tendency to postpone marriage; there is increasing divorce in selected countries, though a value is still placed on marriage and parenthood. However, Quah argues that ‘what is changing radically is the perception of marriage, the perception of the ideal number of children and the inclination of women to expand their horizons by getting more education, becoming income-earners holding paid jobs or pursuing a career’ (pp. 161-62). Quah also devotes considerable attention to state policies in relation to family affairs in fast-changing societies, particularly in the context of economic growth and recession. Overall she is in favour of measured intervention, both preventive and remedial, to help families cope with stress, conflicts and crises and she makes a case for the state ‘to contribute to family well-being’ (p. 180).
The first edition of Families has already become a standard reference in the comparative sociological study of kinship and family trends in Asia. This second edition which develops the analysis and extends the empirical scope much further will only serve to confirm the status of Quah’s work.